The browser or device you are using is out of date. It has known security flaws and a limited feature set. You will not see all the features of some websites. Please update your browser. A list of the most popular browsers can be found below.
LAGOS, Nigeria — Nigeria has more billionaires than any other African country, and many showcase their wealth in opulent neighborhoods downtown. Ikoyi and Victoria islands are tiny compared to the mainland, but they are the commercial heart of the city. Dominated by luxury apartment blocks, banks and the offices of oil and telecom companies, real estate on the islands is out of reach for the majority of the population, but the burgeoning professional class is trying to get as close as they can. The nearby Lekki peninsula is now home to some of the fastest developing neighborhoods in sub-Saharan Africa.
Between the new strip malls and spacious suburban stucco homes in Lekki, the Otodo Gbamé community looks incongruous. Tucked down a road and surrounded by developments, the slum feels like a tranquil fishing village. Rust-covered houses stand on stilts above the lagoon. On land, yellow and blue houses are organized in tidy rows between clearly delineated paths. The slum is one of the last holdouts from the time before the real estate boom, when rural communities spread across the landscape. Now, as expensive real estate proliferates and developers eye the land, Otodo Gbamé residents are struggling to hold on to their homes.
In recent years, skyrocketing growth in Lagos has led to conflicts over land, which often result in violent attacks on poor communities. Last September, residents of Otodo Gbamé fell victim to such attacks. Armed men entered the neighborhood on two separate occasions: The first time they came with machetes, the second time with guns. Over the course of two days, 500 homes were burned, two young men and three children were killed and 14 people were injured. When Azankpo Bonifas, a 50-year-old fisherman, ran to protect his community and put out a fire, he ended up with a machete in the head.
Thugs were blamed for the devastation, but many believe they weren’t working in isolation. The destruction was organized, residents say, by Wasiu Elegushi, a member of a prominent local family that claims ownership over a tract of land that includes Otodo Gbamé. Issues of land title are complicated in Lagos, and overlapping laws and regulations mean that property cases can be tied up in courts for years. As such, when faced with informal communities, there is incentive for landowners to resort to illicit means when trying to gain control of land they see as rightfully theirs.
Although the Otodo Gbamé raids were only reported in a few local newspapers, they had a devastating impact on the community. Waidi Ponor, an elderly leader, saw his house burnt to ashes. All that remained was a concrete foundation; he had been one of the few residents with a cement floor. His family is now spread across the community, staying with friends and any one else who will take them in. “Every day we never cease to drop tears, some of our property has been abused, we lost our loved ones,” he said.
Ponor’s story is not a new one: Slum demolitions have long been part of Lagos’ history. In the 1920s, the colonial government destroyed entire neighborhoods to mitigate an outbreak of bubonic plague. In the 1950s, 200,000 people were displaced from central Lagos Island as part of a “beautification” scheme. Twenty-five years ago, 300,000 people were removed during a state-sponsored eviction in Maroko, one of Lagos’ most visible and iconic slums. That neighborhood has since been filled with sand and covered with expensive new mansions and luxury apartments.
“Demolition and forced evictions are seen as a tool for remaking Lagos, a way to remake the physical landscape,” said Felix Morka, an activist with the nonprofit Social and Economic Rights Action Center (SERAC) in Lagos. When evictions take place, the burden falls disproportionately on the most vulnerable. “These communities are seen as invisible, expendable, not to be taken seriously,” he said.
In recent years, though, major slum evictions spearheaded by city officials have sent reverberations across the city. Images of police in full riot gear demolishing the homes of poor inhabitants have shocked the public, and after Amnesty International produced a report on an illegal eviction in the Badia East neighborhood in Lagos, local activists successfully advocated for compensation for the displaced. “That demolition in Badia took the government of Lagos through hell,” said housing activist Lookman Oshodi. In the aftermath, activists and members of affected communities say that the government now tries to make evictions less visible, often carrying them out via informal authorities instead of state police.
According to human rights activists, raids like the ones that occurred in Otodo Gbamé are a new tactic for clearing out slums and getting around legal accountability. “It’s just as bad as a state eviction, but if it’s thugs they can say it’s inter-communal violence and it’s even harder to pin,” said Megan Chapman, a human rights lawyer and co-founder of Justice and Empowerment Initiatives (JEI), a Lagos-based housing rights organization. Not long after the Otodo Gbamé demolition, a local government official described it on record as a “sanitization exercise.”
Nobody has claimed responsibility for the Otodo Gbamé attacks. Shortly after the demolition, police arrested Wasiu Elegushi at the behest of residents. He was let free less than a month later without charge or investigation; a sign, some Otodo Gbamé residents believe, that police were bribed. “The police let him go because of personal interest,” said Sampson Sose. Elegushi could not be reached for comment, but in a counter-affidavit filed in federal court in Lagos, the family denied all involvement with the demolition.
Tracking down who has legitimate claim to land in Lagos is often a fraught process, one that can bring into focus the contradictions between the laws and the realities on the ground.
Though land in Lagos has traditionally been in the hands of 16 families whose lineages trace back to indigenous Idejo chiefs, contemporary land ownership is complicated. In 1978, the Land Use Act bequeathed all land to the state, and people granted a “certificate of occupancy” were allowed to legally live and build on land they had already been occupying. At the same time, people whose land titles were issued before 1978 were automatically granted a “deemed right of occupancy.”
In Lagos, the courts are just one way to resolve conflicts, and often a frustrating way at that. Extra-legal negotiations, threats and backroom deals are common. Making informal payoffs to people who claim to possess traditional land titles is a derided but ubiquitous practice.
The Elegushis have controlled the land that includes Otodo Gbamé “for over 200 years,” said Prince Olanrewaju Elegushi, a member of a royal hierarchy and the chairman of a local government authority. Though the family has reams of documents asserting their claim on the land, critics say such paperwork is often falsified. “All the discussion of land tenure in Lagos is on cloud nine,” said Andrew Maki, a human rights lawyer and co-founder of JEI. He cited estimates that 60 percent of certificates in Lagos are fraudulent.
Residents of Otodo Gbamé, on the other hand, claim that their predecessors have lived on the land since 1902, though they never acquired an official title. “Our parents were not educated persons, it’s now that the youth are trying to go through that [land titling] process,” explained Emmanuel Anasu, an earnest young activist. The name Otodo Gbamé means “community in the bush” in Egun language, he said, because when the community first moved in, the area was rural.
Even if the Elegushis’ title was airtight, it could have taken years to evict Otodo Gbamé residents through official processes. Once a land dispute case is in court, the status of the land is effectively frozen. In this way, the current system incentivizes illegal evictions, since landowners are often more willing to deal with informal payoffs or protracted court cases following a demolition than legal pre-eviction processes that can stall projects for years.
After the Otodo Gbamé eviction, residents filed suit against the Elegushi family in the federal court in Lagos. The case claimed that the attack had violated residents’ “fundamental rights to life, dignity, liberty, property, due process, privacy in the home, livelihood, housing, and education” as guaranteed by the Nigerian constitution. Since residents don’t have a title to the land, lawyer Achike Umunna decided to pursue the Otodo Gbamé case on the basis of human rights, with the hope that a victory would bring some degree of justice and accountability. “Even if they are your ‘tenants,’ so to say, you can’t just walk in there and start killing them,” he said.
Soon after, the Elegushis retaliated with a 111-page counter-affidavit asserting their ownership of the land and denying not only any involvement in the attacks on Otodo Gbamé, but also the community’s existence in the first place. The federal judge sided with them, forwarding the suit to state court to hear as a land case. Umunna appealed the move, and a decision is pending.
Chapman, the human rights lawyer with JEI, sighed when she heard the news. Her organization has tracked lots of suits filed as human rights claims that ended up as land rights cases. She described the case as “one of many” in which “the courts of Lagos state and the federal high court are refusing to hear matters of fundamental rights enforcement when those matters touch on issues of land.”
Chapman made her remarks outside a hearing for another community that had been violently demolished, allegedly by police officers, to clear land for a new police housing development. Nearly three years ago, 1,500 houses were destroyed and a six-month-old baby was killed during attacks on the adjoining Atiporomeh, Araromi Ale and Mowo Phase II communities west of Lagos. Fifteen thousand residents were also displaced, according to Chief Adu Edeha Charles, a community leader. Many now sleep in churches, mosques or parking lots while waiting on the resolution of their case.
Over and over judges have denied members of demolished communities the opportunity to receive reparations for their homes and property. Many communities have been left in limbo for years, and in addition to having to rebuild their lives, residents commonly suffer from physical and psychological problems in the wake of stressful evictions.
Nigeria is a signatory to numerous human rights treaties, but enforcement is a challenge. While cases go unresolved in court, victims frequently drop them or accept extrajudicial settlements.
Some human rights organizations, however, are trying to fight back. JEI holds training sessions to inform community members about their rights, such as understanding the statute of limitations on trespassing. According to Nigerian law, if a person spends more than 12 years on a plot of land, even if they don’t have a title to it, they can no longer be summarily evicted. Still, a case has never been won on the statute of limitations argument. In the face of courts that seem to prioritize land law over human rights law, the tools for resistance can seem feeble.
The shacks in Otodo Gbamé are surrounded by cranes and enormous developments. The inequality is obvious; so is the fast pace of gentrification. From the outside, the community is dwarfed, hidden behind urban growth.
Jonathan Zosu, a 30-year-old youth leader and primary school teacher in Otodo Gbamé resolutely believes that the community, led by its educated youth, will continue to stand up to external pressures. “We insist, we have no other land, it’s where we have to live forever, until Jesus comes, we aren’t going away, it’s our land,” he said.
But Ponor, the elder, is less confident. “We are not wealthy like the royal people,” he said, looking wearily over his community. Beyond it, construction projects loomed on all sides.